Words by: Nina Zietman
There aren’t many people who say they want to be a brewery owner when they grow up – not even Meg Gill.
For Meg, life has always been about swimming. She would get up at 4am everyday and swim before school. She competed nationally while studying at Yale and had her sights set on the Olympics. So how did this strong ambitious athlete become the youngest female brewery owner in America?
Don’t fear being different and standing out. You’re not the same as the old boy’s network, but that’s not a bad thing
In the last five years, craft beer has seen a huge revival. Sales of craft beer have increased by 79 per cent in 2013 in the UK, while over in America small breweries are biting at the heels of large brewers that previously dominated the market.
And it is not just bearded men with checked shirts drinking craft beer. Women make up a quarter of beer drinkers in the UK and USA, and it’s continuing to grow.
With long wavy golden hair and a surfer girl look to her, Meg is pioneering the way for female brewery owners. Last year she was picked out in Forbes 30 Under 30. Now she is one of a handful of women worldwide making a successful career after founding the largest brewery in Los Angeles, Golden Road Brewing.
But beer wasn’t always on the cards for Meg. For over twenty years, it was all about swimming. She learnt to swim aged one. By the time Meg was 8 years old, she was scoring league records in the county and racing on a regular basis. She kept her grades up and finished school as one of the highest achieving pupils in the year, securing a place to study Classics at Yale.
In her senior year at Yale, Meg finished the final leg of the freestyle relay in an amazing 22.26 seconds. It was a new record in Ivy League swimming. After graduating, she landed a job with Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado.
It was early days for Oskar Blues. At the time they were brewing around 10,000 barrels of beer a year. Now they are the second largest brewery in Colorado and one of the fastest growing in America, putting out upwards of 200,000 barrels of beer a year.
But Meg still dreamt of becoming a professional athlete. As she told Imbibe magazine, “Even when I first got into the craft beer scene, selling beer was something I saw as a side gig. It was a means to earn additional money, so I could swim more.”
Then in 2009, Meg survived in a horrible car accident that threatened to end her athletic career. “I was driving home from my first big open water swim at Lake Tahoe. You spend all day in a boat or in cold water without a wetsuit. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had vertigo. I felt off balance while driving and ended up flipping the Suburu I was driving off the side of the mountain.”
Rescue teams had to use hydraulic metal cutters to prise Meg from the wreckage and she was air lifted to hospital. Meg was left with severe concussion and total memory loss for over a month. It took six months to properly recover.
“The brain trauma was pretty bad. I had to rebuild my memory. I wasn’t able to workout or get in the pool, so I started reading all these business books and beer industry magazines and fell in love with beer.”
Even when I first got into the craft beer scene, selling beer was something I saw as a side gig to earn additional money, so I could swim more
It was around the same time craft beer brewing was having a revival. It went from being something Star Wars watching, bearded old men did in their garages into a new culture for the young millennial generation.
“I could see it and I could feel it,” says Meg. “I knew it was about to happen.” At the time she was working in San Francisco for an established brewery called Speakeasy but by 2011 – aged just 26 – Meg decided to set up her own brewery Golden Road with fellow entrepreneur Tony Yanow.
Based in Los Angeles, Golden Road is now a booming success story, producing 30,000 barrels of craft ale a year and revenues exceeding 10 millions dollars, making it one of the fastest growing breweries in the US.
Aside from their fresh beer, it’s Golden Road’s environmental values that stand out. Meg explains how she built this eco-awareness into the ethos of the brewery from the beginning.
“I was surfing at Santa Monica after a big rainstorm. I didn’t realise in LA you’re not supposed to surf after a storm because the water quality is so bad.
“Anything that goes down the storm drain – McDonald’s cups, all kinds of waste – gets flushed straight into the ocean. As I was getting out of the water, someone from Heal The Bay (an environmental group) explained to me what was going on.”
Golden Road now brew their own Heal The Bay IPA with one dollar from each four pack going towards the environmental charity. All of their high-end craft beer is canned, rather than bottled because aluminium is one of the most recycled materials in the world.
They don’t produce bird-choking plastic rings. Their cardboard boxes are recycled. The spent grain used to make the beer is given used as farming compost.
Swimming lead me to get into the beer business, but it’s now changed its place in my life. Now, when I need a release, I swim
But what happened to her swimming career? “Swimming lead me to get into the beer business, but it’s now changed its place in my life. It used to be a major focus and now it’s more of a security blanket. When I need a release, I swim.”
Meg still competes in three major swim meets every year and even with her busy schedule still manages to get in the pool three or four times a week. “I sneak workouts in everyday, even if it’s just 15 minutes on the driving range. I know they are just as valuable for business as anything else I do in my day.”
She believes surfing is a really good way to gain perspective when running a business. “After a really great surf session, you get so in the zone that it takes you out of the daily grind for a couple of hours. It allows me the perspective to have bigger picture decisions quicker than I would otherwise.”
When it comes to setting up your own business, woman often cite lack of confidence as one of the main reasons holding them back, but Meg says that shouldn’t stop you.
“Don’t fear being different and standing out. Try using your differences as an advantage. You’re not the same as the old boy’s network, but that’s not a bad thing. It can be a breath of fresh air, especially if you surround yourself with the right people.”
For Meg, life hasn’t turned out how she expected it to, but if anything there’s a lesson to be learnt here. “People originally thought I was crazy for having a Yale degree and working for a start-up craft brewer making no money. But there’s enormous upside of getting in on the ground floor of these things – and in the end, it’s turned out pretty well.”